With home delivery and click and collect services reaching record highs, Combilift’s new order picker offers faster, more user-friendly service, plus a chance to optimise your stock storage.

Online ordering has boomed under Covid for both retail and trade customers. What started as a helpful way for people to avoid direct contact during lockdown has kept growing, with some figures showing a decade’s-worth of growth in the ecommerce sector in 2020.

Hardware and timber retailers with a significant retail customer base (and some without, too) have also seen strong growth in their delivery and click and collect services. Tradies, many of whom have had anything but the quiet year they were expecting, have taken advantage of the time-savings offered by online ordering. But the convenience for the customer comes with a trade-off: it’s additional work for the retailer, timber yard or trade centre and there is an expectation of increased speed and service without additional costs.

The most economical solution is often machinery that can speed up the job of order picking and getting deliveries out. Combilift’s new Aisle Master-OP, a stand-on electric-powered lift, does just that.

“When you look at the product range we’ve brought to market over recent years,” says Martin McVicar, Combilift’s Ireland-based managing director, “none of the products look like a conventional forklift. They’ve all got something unique, whether that’s handling long goods safely in a small area, handling palletised goods in narrow aisles, our specific pedestrian units… We invest very heavily in our R&D, and even in 2020 with everything else going on, we kept that up. The result is this new product launch.”

New aisle master

“While the OP doesn’t look hugely different to the standard Aisle Masters, moving into the order picking side is a big difference,” McVicar says.

“It had been on the drawing table for the past five or six years and was driven by customer feedback from people who were looking for that order picking specialisation well before Covid.”

Traditional Aisle Master trucks were adept at nipping down narrow aisles between racking, but getting on and off involved climbing about a metre in and out to the seat each time. The OP has a low 280mm floor height, meaning it’s simple to just step on and off, and is open both sides for operator walk-through. This makes it quick and comfortable for the operator to move from the drive to order picking positions multiple times through the working day.

In 2017 Combilift filed design copyright protection on the step-through design, and has also patented the front steering mechanism, which uses a chain system that keeps the unit extremely compact and allows it to work in a very narrow aisle. This mechanism is now being incorporated into other Aisle Master models.

“We didn’t just focus on the mechanical parts,” says McVicar, “we put a lot of focus onto the operator comfort in this vehicle.”

The OP comes with a programmable operator interface that uses a touch screen system and has advanced driver assistance systems, including automatic speed adjustment for cornering and tilt information as well as a spring-applied parking brake.

Operating speeds can be set at different maximums for different operators, keeping novice operators at a more restrained pace. The interface delivers all the essential information, is easy to operate and, like the seat and joystick, ergonomic – giving support to the operators in every sense.

Additionally, the interface stores information history, which helps aid after-sales support and can give useful data to company managers.

During the design process, Combilift partnered with several customer companies around the world that had specific needs for a unit like the OP. One of these was Sorted Logistics in New Zealand, a business that currently operates two Combilift Straddle Carriers and 13 Aisle Masters.

“We knew they wanted assistance with their order picking, so we had one of the owners, Rewi Te Whatu, come to our facility in February last year. His experience of user needs helped finalise some of the finer detail of the design,” McVicar says.

“He was a real driver in finessing how the OP would work for the operators. Now we’re finishing his first order of eight units.”

The Aisle Master-OP does a lot of the work of an everyday lift as well as order picking. It can be used for replenishing stock, bringing pallets from truck to rack and to bring volume stock from higher racks down to the picking area at the bottom two levels. Instead of moving the order picker out and a forklift in, this one general-purpose unit does everything from unloading to racking to order picking for a wide variety of pallet sizes.

It comes with a standard lead-acid battery at the moment, but the software on the base model is lithium battery-ready and so any customer who wants to work with lithium is able to straight away. Because battery technology is currently quite localised, Combilift has left the sourcing of lithium batteries to its local markets rather than standardising out of its Irish manufacturing base.

The battery unit has been designed for easy changing using a pallet lift. Two batteries will keep the unit in continual operation for most usual applications.

Warehouse optimising

Online ordering hasn’t been the only recent change driving demand for products like the Aisle Master-OP. Workplace social distancing restrictions around the world have seen manufacturers as well as retailers quickly and significantly change the way they lay out their workspaces, even faster than the changes from increasing real estate costs.

McVicar says, “We’ve seen a massive demand internationally for our product that allows customers to store more raw material or more finished goods in a smaller area and free up production space in the middle so there’s more room for workers and for additional volumes. And that really has created additional demand for our free warehouse design service.”

The free warehouse consultancy planning service is a no-commitment required extra that Combilift has been offering for many years. While its key goal is, unsurprisingly, to sell more product, the team has also worked hard to foreground wider industry issues, including worker safety and making the most economical use of sites.

They deliver specific options to the customer, all built around principles of space and efficiency optimisation and eliminating load movements at height, shown as animations so customers can see how the racking and machinery will work.

“With the free warehouse design, we make this very visual for our clients,” says McVicar. “We’ve had a doubling in demand for the service over the last 12 months, and now we’ve noticed the additional volume of business it’s bringing in.”

For timber businesses with hardware components and hardware stores with trade yards, the combination of design service and the new Aisle Master-OP opens up the potential for a significant increase in stock, or for handing over more space to the long timber offer without having to sacrifice drive-through areas or pay for more real estate.

Capable indoors and out, the OP is an ideal second lift. “A lot of Australian companies like your Mitre 10s and your other building suppliers, they have a lot of palletised goods, it’s not just long load handling for them,” McVicar says. “There’s great opportunity there for them to add this unit, especially because it comes with a wide range of rental options.

“The unit price point is already attractive, but when you add in the warehouse design and factor out the cost of the space they’re saving by moving to the narrow-aisle model, they’re actually getting a forklift for free. We’ve seen customers renting less space or subletting their spare space – it really opens up your options.”

Chris Littlewood, Combilift country manager, Australia, adds, “We’ve also seen companies that are already using narrow-aisle technologies be able to further increase what they can store and get more value out of their space with these new generations of narrow-aisle lifts.”

The OP is the latest in Combilift’s successful recent introductions, including the Combi Container Slip Sheet (CSS), which can very quickly load (six minutes to load a full container) and unload packs of timber. Tilling has recently placed a significant CSS order to destuff their long engineered product from its containers faster and with reduced risk of damage compared to doing the job with standard forklifts.

The CSS joins the straddle carrier range and series of long-load specialty lifts that have seen the brand find a natural home in the timber sector. The OP slots into this offer neatly. Like the other units, it’s differentiated by its focus on how businesses actually use their machines.

“We’ve seen in ecommerce that all the goods aren’t on uniform pallets,” McVicar says. “Many traditional forklift trucks are only suitable for uniform pallets, which isn’t what goes into the normal online order. A Combilift, we make machines for what businesses do, not what’s easiest for us to design and manufacture.”

For more information, visit https://combilift.com/aisle-master-op/